The Runaway Trolley: The ethical question that drives Prey

A runaway train is coming down the tracks. There are five people tied to the tracks, unable to move, and the train is going to kill them. You're near a lever, and can pull it to direct the train onto a different set of tracks...but if you do it, the train will kill a single person tied to the other tracks.

What do you do? 

This is a simple version of what is known in the study of ethics as the Trolley Problem. It's one of the most famous thought experiments in the entire field, and you've likely heard some version of it before somewhere. If you have played 2017's Prey, you know you're tasked with providing answers to this question and several similar hypotheticals in the game's opening sequence. 

It's up to you whether you take Prey's ethical questionnaire seriously or not, and you can't be blamed for forgetting about it entirely once you're in the middle of the chaos of the Talos I space station. But it's no accident that the game serves up this classic ethical quandary right at the start. It's there for a very important reason.

Prey is one big 25-hour long Trolley Problem. 

Spoiler info: Spoilers in this article will be labeled on a per-section basis. We'll let you know when huge spoilers are coming so you know if you want to stop reading. 

The hypothetical made real

This section will not spoil anything beyond the opening hour of Prey

The argument in favor of switching tracks in the Trolley Problem represents the Utilitarian view of ethics, which can basically be summarized as "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." Since taking action and pulling the switch will save more lives, you are morally obligated to do it. 

Arguments against pulling the switch can come in a number of forms, such as the importance of not actively participating in a moral evil, or the impossibility of comparing the value of different human lives. These arguments become stronger, for many, when escalated forms of the Trolley Problem are presented, such as a scenario where you would have to personally push a fat man to his death in order to stop the train. 

A common criticism of the Trolley Problem, as with many ethical thought experiments, is that its simplicity and lack of real world complications undermines its power. A hypothetical ethical scenario in which the consequences of all your actions are clearly stated before you even make your choice is hardly a meaningful predictor of real behavior, after all. In the Trolley Problem you know that one choice will absolutely kill five people, and the other choice will absolutely kill one person. There's no uncertainty.

And you may feel the same way as you start Prey and click your way through the questionnaire. While the ethical questions may be interesting, they're bloodless and lacking in impact. 

And then, over the next 20 or so hours of play time, Prey forces you, acting as the game's protagonist Morgan Yu, to take these ethical choices very seriously. The hypothetical scenario becomes bloody, and personal, and real. 

Yu can cause the train to switch tracks. Everyone is counting on Yu. 

To save the station or the species

This section will discuss the general plot of Prey and the main decision that determines what sort of ending you get, but not what happens after you make that choice

Within the opening hours of Prey you learn that Talos I, the space station on which you (as Yu) have lived and worked for years, is falling apart under the assault of aliens known as the Typhon. These aliens were the subject of experiments on the space station—experiments in which you were an active participant—before they broke containment. 

You can't remember the years you have spent on Talos I thanks to a side effect of Neuromods, an experimental technology which involves the use of Typhon genetic material and which reprograms the human brain to instantly learn new skills. When a Neuromod is removed it resets a person's memory back to the way it was before the Neuromod was ever installed, and that is what has been happening to you, over and over again. You helped develop Neuromods and were a willing participant in these tests—at least at first—but at some point your brother, Alex Yu, may have taken things too far. 

Now you've broken out of your testing area and found the station in chaos as the Typhon run wild. The aliens are tricky enemies, as they can disguise themselves as harmless objects, turn human corpses into more Typhon, and even dominate humans with mind control. Because of these traits, it could be absolutely catastrophic if any Typhon were to ever reach Earth. 

You learn much of this backstory from January, a robotic Operator you personally programmed with your own thoughts, goals, and instructions at an earlier point you don't remember. January helped free you from your testing under the instructions you gave it (or him? The proper way to talk about Operators is a whole different article), and now tells you the grim truth: the only way to defeat the Typhon and ensure that the rest of humanity remains safe is to destroy the Talos I space station, killing everyone on it, including yourself. 

Your reaction to this news will vary, obviously, but I think a lot of players may respond similarly to the way I did. Okay, I thought, so I have to blow everything up to save the world. I can do that. No problem.

It's all so simple in theory, isn't it? 

Heading towards your goal of activating the station's self destruct mechanism takes you everywhere in and around Talos I. You learn a lot about the station's crew in the process. You read e-mails, listen to audiologs, and even meet some survivors.

You're given opportunities to save a scientist from suffocating, to help security forces defend themselves against the Typhon, and even to fetch an old friend's medicine to keep her from dying a painful death. In all of these situations you aren't actually required to do these things, if you don't want to, but I did all of them, and I think many players will make the same choices. It felt like the right thing to do, even as January pointed out that, if I intended to destroy the station and kill everyone anyway, it wasn't exactly logical. 

As I played Prey, as I saved lives and witnessed tragic deaths, as I learned about unrequited loves and eavesdropped on a tabletop RPG game whose players were all now dead...I found that I really, really didn't want to blow up the station anymore. 

There has to be another way, I thought. 

The Trolley Problem is a lot more complicated when you know the people tied to the tracks personally. 

The fat man

This section will discuss the general plot of the game and the main decision that determines what sort of ending you get in Prey, but not what happens after you make that choice

There is another choice you can make in Prey, and your alternative is presented by your brother Alex. Though January warns you again and again not to trust him, you hear Alex's side of things. He does offer apologies for how things have turned out, but assures you that destroying the station is unnecessary. Through the use of a prototype Neurowave device the Typhon can be destroyed, and work on the station can resume. 

Of course, January is skeptical. Siding with Alex puts all of humanity at risk. He's overconfident, he's been lying to you, and he's just going to lead you right back into disaster. Why would you believe that the Typhon could be controlled this time? How dare you gamble with the fate of the entire human race? 

In order to ally with Alex it's necessary to "kill" January. And while it's arguable how much moral weight we should attach to destroying an artificially intelligent Operator, the fact that this Operator is, essentially, you from not very long in the the past makes the act significant. Siding with Alex means rejecting concerns an earlier Morgan Yu believed were deadly serious, and involves self-sacrifice of its own kind. 

If Alex and January are both alive at the end of the game, you can either eavesdrop on them arguing over the fate of the station or interact with both of them directly. If you remain in the shadows one of them will eventually kill or disable the other, though you are still free to make the big choice yourself. If you confront them they will both try to appeal to you to "do the right thing," with January urging the importance of self-sacrifice and Alex shooting back: "That's easy to say when it's not your skin." 

The choice is ultimately yours, and you can make it even if January and Alex both end up dead. There are achievements associated with killing each of them yourself, with the one associated with Alex called "Push the fat guy." 

The Shuttle Advent and Abandoning the Ship

This section will discuss the Shuttle Advent side objective and the alternate "December Ending" for the game.

There are a number of smaller ethical choices you can make in Prey aside from the game's central choice, and one of the most interesting is the fate of the Shuttle Advent. It's an optional side mission and its easy to miss, but once you stumble upon the associated information on the station Bridge it triggers an in-game timer, and you won't have long to make your choice before it's made for you. 

You learn that a shuttle left the station about 30 minutes before it was discovered that the Typhon had broken out of containment, and it's making its way to Earth. It's impossible to get in contact with the shuttle at this point, and it's impossible to find out if there might be a Mimic Typhon hiding on the shuttle, just waiting to bring disaster to Earth. 

Via a control panel on Talos I you can either allow the shuttle to reach Earth intact or you can trigger its destruction, killing those on board. Those are your options, you won't get more information, and the clock is ticking. 

The Shuttle Advent is a great example of how Trolley Problem-style issues become more complicated once you remove the certainty of the outcome of different choices. 

Are all these ethical choices too heavy for you? You never asked for all this responsibility, after all. Maybe you don't want to decide. Or maybe you just want to save your own skin. 

If that's the case, then the game's alternate December ending is for you. You can complete this ending by finding an Operator named December, who you learn was created by a version of you in the past, prior to the creation of January. December urges you to track down Alex's Escape Pod key, which you can use to leave the station entirely. Forget about saving the station or saving the human race; the December ending is all about saving yourself. 

You can actually reach the December ending earlier than the game's main endings with a bit of skillful jumping. As you make your way into the escape pod, both January and Alex scold you for your choice. If you persist you are actually able to escape and get an ending of sorts, but a brief, cryptic scene in which Alex calls you a failure and instructs someone to "start again" gives you a hint that you've missed out on the truth underlying the game 

Mirror neurons, empathy, and the real world

This section will discuss everything up through the very end of Prey. 

After you make your big choice at the end of Prey you either witness the station destroyed or the Typhon purged with Alex's device, then the game's credits unfold. Following the credits, however, is one more scene that provides a new perspective on everything that you did during your playthrough. 

You awake in a chair facing Alex and a number of Operators who seem to be versions of the major NPCs you encountered during your game. The group discusses your actions, and you learn that everything you have just been through has been a re-creation based on Morgan Yu's memories. You, it seems, are a Typhon/human hybrid organism that has been created as part of an attempt to make peace with the Typhon, who have already overrun Earth. 

All of Prey, in effect, was an ethical test. During the game you learn that the Typhon lack mirror neurons, which are believed to play a major role in feelings of empathy towards other life forms. By blending Typhon and human genetic material to create you, Alex and his team are hoping to craft a creature that can really "see" humans in a meaningful way: as intelligent living things with intrinsic worth. 

So what happened when you played Prey? How did you answer the Trolley Problem when you first took the test? How did you respond when you were told you would need to destroy the station and sacrifice yourself? And did your answers change as you got to know the people of the station?

Did you demonstrate empathy?

Both the choice to blow up the station and to preserve it can be defended on ethical grounds, just as is the case with the Trolley Problem, and none of the different variations of Prey's ending scene declares either one to be "correct" (though some of the more complicated ending states, such as activating the station's self destruct countdown and then personally fleeing the station before it explodes, are clearly frowned upon). 

Alex and the Operators know they can't be certain why you made the choices that you did, any more than you can know what someone will do in real life based on their answer to a hypothetical ethical question. The whole game was just another test, after all. 

And in that way, as was the case with the classic BioShock "Would you kindly?" reveal, Prey succeeds because it is a test of the player as much as the game's protagonist. You, as Yu, had to decide what value you placed on the lives of those on the station, the personal needs of those you met, and the existential danger the Typhon could pose to all of humanity. 

In contrast to these big, tough decision, the game's final choice, to either take Alex's hand or "Kill them all" seems simple. But the fact that even this final ending reveal might itself be a simulation (if you don't know what I'm talking about, pause during the flash at 19:04 of this video) complicates things even further...which is perfectly in keeping with how these ethical dilemmas normally go.

Right and wrong are never easy.